Fort Worth — Neither one of them was born when I Love Lucy was the "must-see TV" of its day in the 1950s, yet they have played one of America's most beloved couples, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, about 400 times in front of a live audience in I Love Lucy Live on Stage, making its Texas premiere at Bass Performance Hall March 11-16, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth. Sirena Irwin plays the dizzy redhead who always has a scheme for breaking into the act of her bandleader husband, Ricky Ricardo, played by Bill Mendieta. The stage production takes the audience into the television studio for the recording of two episodes of the I Love Lucy show, complete with period commercials and studio singers, The Crystaltones, and with the added element of being in living color. The episodes are "The Benefit" (1952) and "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined" (1953), chosen because they feature all four main characters throughout, feature song and dance, are pre-Little Ricky and before all that travel to places like Hollywood and Italy. Irwin and Mendieta chatted with TheaterJones about the show and what it's like to take on characters everyone knows and loves.
TheaterJones: How do you prepare to play such an iconic role, like Lucy or Ricky?
Sirena Irwin: Well, it's obviously a bear because it is such an iconic role. I bow down at Lucille Ball's clown shoes—such beauty and grace and humor. It's just everything you could ask for in a part, and she brought it. It was actually terrifying at first, but once I got out of my panic, I got down to the work of understanding the character. I didn't have a great knowledge of I Love Lucy, I'm embarrassed to say, but now I do. Then, it becomes similar to how you approach any role, which is beginning to know the character through the script. Getting to actually watch Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy made all the difference. The show translates through our bodies and brains in a unique way. The director, Rick Sparks, wanted us to capture the essence of these characters and not just do an impersonation.
Bill Mendieta: First of all, it's a wonderful role. I was scared at first—everyone has an attachment to these people and what has been done before, so we want to honor that and the I Love Lucy show and the original work that the actors put in on it. It's important to remember that underneath it all in that show is a deep love. It's interesting to know that when we watch these characters that they were married in real life. I watched the show and immersed myself in I Love Lucy's world, and I read up on TV history, which gave me a respect for them and the show's creators and the risks that they took. My research gave me a foundation in the basic sit-com structure—knowing the elements and really fighting for the truth in the character. Ricky came from Cuba and was trying to be a success in America. He was a success, but not at the top. Ricky really humanizes the human dream. So before putting on the accent and the moves, I needed to understand the character. I worked a lot on the Cuban accent. It's very specific and authentic. Also working the songs of this period was really a lot of fun!
Was Lucille Ball's physical comedy the hardest part for you, Sirena?
SI: For me, the physical comedy wasn't as hard. I came from doing a lot of sketch and improv, and even right out of college, on my résumé under "special skills," I had put "wildly unafraid." It's funny because as I have read about Lucille Ball and from Lucy herself in her autobiography, she always said she didn't think she was funny, just brave. A lot of her physical actions come from bravery and not being afraid of being a fool. I've never been afraid of being a fool or looking like a weirdo. The hardest thing for me has been keeping it really honest and grounded despite all of the antics that are happening. I think Lucy did that beautifully, and that's what keeps us in love with Lucille Ball. I think being too crazy is not being grounded in truth, and the gift has been knowing the difference.
What are the audience reactions to the show?
SI: It's so exciting! I was terrified at the beginning. This character is so beloved, I thought if I don't do her justice, there will be outrage. But by learning all I could know about what made her tick and bringing that to the show, what I have been astounded by has been the love and the support from the audiences. I really feared the judgment—here I am not even trying to fill her shoes, she filled her own shoes quite nicely—I'm just filling my own shoes. I have been so touched, the audiences have helped me grow and relax into this character with their love and joy.
BM: They are very positive. When we first put [the show] up, we didn't know the show would be quite as popular as it has been. When it first starts, there is a little guardedness about what we're going to do with those precious scripts and the show everyone loves so much. The concept is that the audience is going back in time and becomes the live studio audience. We welcome them to go on a journey back in time with us, and the audiences seem to have fun on the ride. They leave smiling. The audiences we've met have been so appreciative. Some people have said they felt like they were watching the I Love Lucy show, and that makes me feel very honored.
How has the show changed since it premiered in Los Angeles in 2011?
SI: It's grown a little bit, it's a bigger show than when we started. The episodes in the show are the same, but the show is a lot more than just the episodes. It's also the Crystaltone singers and commercials from back then, and it just continues to expand and grow and fill the space. We started in a 99-seat theater, but now we're up to a couple thousand in places like Indianapolis. It's changed for me personally because I am always reading a book about the show, so I have a deepening knowledge of the show.
BM: There have been little tweaks here and there that have enriched the show. It's gotten bigger. One of my songs was a solo, and now I have backup dancers. We've also grown as characters. Living with Ricky for this long, I've grown in my appreciation of the role. It's been a good journey for me, and working with Sirena, we've found a joy and trust with each other. We've known each other since college actually. We've done the show 400 times now, and it's still fun. We have lots of laughs on stage and backstage. We hope that energy carries to the audience.
Do you have a favorite Lucy episode?
SI: One is the ballet episode, when Lucy wants to get into Ricky's act as a ballet dancer, and then she learns the "slowly I turn" bit. I think it's absolutely hilarious, and her timing is perfect. The other one that always sticks in my mind isn't one of the funniest ones, but it's very touching—the one when she tells Ricky that she's pregnant. I can't watch that one without tearing up.
BM: It changes from time to time. Sometimes it's the original pilot that doesn't get shown that often—that's a fun one. Lately, it's been the ones when they go to Hollywood, especially the famous one with Lucy wearing the big headdress and trying to go down the stairs, and the ones when she meets the stars, like William Holden. We can all relate to meeting someone famous and trying to be cool and then something always happens.
What gives I Love Lucy its longevity?
SI: I think it's a combination of things. Clearly, they had lightning in a bottle, and that comes from being very funny and their timing as a foursome and the guests who joined in, but also that it was always grounded in truth and the incredible love between Lucy and Ricky and this incredible companionship they had with Fred and Ethel. It's almost like wish fulfillment to always have these people who will take off and go anywhere with you. It's just sort of perfect. It lives in a bubble. The show never dealt with political issues, it was really relationship driven. And that's what we all have, relationships.
BM: Those friendships with Fred and Ethel and seeing a loving couple with their best friends. It goes back to basic human values of friendship, love and marriage. They have struggles, they're not happy all the time, but there is that core of love. And the shows are funny and fun. They're fun to watch. They're all something we can connect with—these are real people who are just like everyone else, just trying to make it in the world. The shows are written so well, and the physical comedy and the musicality with having the Tropicana and having them sing and perform just adds to that.
Which one of you would kick butt in an I Love Lucy trivia contest?
SI: I think we'd have to try it to find out! I honestly don't know, but I have become a Lucy trivia junkie, so I know Bill would have stiff competition.
BM: I think probably Sirena, and I'll tell you why. She did not grow up watching I Love Lucy, so she had to get caught up. I grew up watching it [in syndication], and I consciously had to stop watching at some point so I didn't do a carbon copy of it. But yeah, Sirena would win.